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Nearly six years after the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes Water Compact won bipartisan approval in the Montana Legislature, the agreement for settling water rights claims has received crucial bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

Last week, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced legislation to settle damage claims with the tribes and to implement the agreement approved by the state of Montana in 2015. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., signed on as the first co-sponsor of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act. Tester introduced legislation in 2016 to implement the compact, but it went nowhere for lack of Daines' support in the Republican-majority Senate.

The bill Daines authored includes two major changes to how the federal government will compensate the CSKT under terms of the 1855 Hell Gate Treaty. The treaty recognizes the tribes had been hunting and fishing in what is now Western Montana since "time immemorial" and guarantees the tribes water rights to continue members' traditional hunting and fishing. 

Montana ranchers, farmers and other landowners also claim and use water covered by the CSKT treaty. Rather than litigate each of thousands of water rights claims in the Montana Water Court with uncertain outcomes for decades, the state, the tribe, the federal government and other stakeholders spent years negotiating a settlement. It passed the 2015 Legislature with strong support from several Montana agriculture groups. The pact provides certainty and fairness while saving the money that decades of lawsuits would have cost the state, the tribe and private landowners.

In Daines' bill, the tribe will receive $1.9 billion from the federal government to settle claims and rehabilitate the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, which is $400 million less than Tester proposed in his 2016 bill.

Daines' bill also will return management of the National Bison Range at Moiese to the CSKT while guaranteeing continued public access. 

“Restoring the Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the Tribes is an elegant solution that would correct the historic injustice of the United States’ taking the Bison Range from the Tribes’ treaty-reserved homeland without Tribal consent," CSKT Tribal Chairman Ronald Trahan said, according to the Char-Koosta News, an official online CSKT news publication. "It would also save taxpayer dollars and allow the Tribes’ award-winning Natural Resources Department to manage the land and wildlife as part of the extensive network of Tribal conservation lands that surround the Bison Range. It would mark a return to making things whole again.”

The Char-Koosta News reported that Trahan endorsed Daines' bill, saying: “This will work and get the job done. This bill will ensure the protection of vital resources while seeing to the needs of the greater community.”

"I'm pleased to introduce this bipartisan legislation that will permanently protect the water rights of all Montanans," Daines said Wednesday in a joint news release with Tester. "This bipartisan bill and settlement is a good faith compromise that will bring final resolution to a century long water dispute, avoid years of costly litigation and save taxpayers over $400 million."

Tester added: "I'm glad the CSKT Water Compact now has the backing of folks on both side of the aisle as well as the Trump Administration, so we can move full steam ahead to honor our trust and treat responsibilities, prevent costly litigation, boost economic development in the region and give long-overdue piece of mind to everyone in Northwest Montana who uses our state's most valuable resource."

Both Democratic Governor Steve Bullock and Republican Attorney General Tim Fox supported the compact that the Legislature approved in 2015. Not all Montanans were pleased with the deal, but the vast majority of those who worked on it for years, studied it closely and understood the state and federal laws involved know that the compact is the best course for all Montanans, including the CSKT and non-tribal landowners.

Up for re-election in 2020, Daines is finally on board with this water settlement, but getting anything through the U.S. Senate is increasingly difficult. We call on Daines to get the Montana Water Rights Protection Act through the GOP-controlled Senate in 2020. The Trump administration last month signaled its support, so the president probably will sign — if the bill gets to his desk.

We are counting on Tester to encourage his fellow Democrats to back the bill that Daines introduced.

With the CSKT water bill, Montana's senators have a great opportunity to deliver for our state an exceedingly rare victory that benefits everyone — not just one party.

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